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Huge snowflakes drifted down through the night sky, spattering against the windshield of Caley Lambert's rental car. She watched through tired eyes as the wipers slapped them away, the rhythmic sound lulling her toward complete exhaustion. Her eyelids fluttered and she felt herself drifting, then reached down and opened the window.
The chilly night air was a slap to the face and Caley drew a deep breath. The flight from New York had been late getting into Chicago and by the time she'd arrived, the airport hotel had given away her room. Left with nowhere to sleep, she'd decided to drive the two hours to her parents' lake house rather than waste time searching for a room.
It wasn't so much an urge to get home that sent her into the midst of a snowstorm, but the fact that Caley just hated wasting time. After eleven years of living in Manhattan and seven years of working the cutthroat world of public relations, she'd learned to be very efficient with every minute of her day. She didn't waste time on anything that couldn't get her ahead in the world professionally. She worked out because the gym was a good place to network. She belonged to seven different professional organizations because all those names looked good on her résumé. And she had worked sixteen-hour days for seven years because that was the way to get herself a partnership.
"So what am I doing in North Lake, Wisconsin?" she muttered.
Her younger sister, Emma, had called a few weeks ago, insisting that Caley come home for the week before Valentine's Day. Emma had a very special event planned at the lake house, but she refused to give any details, only that every one of the Lamberts should be in attendance. Caley's parents had been married on Valentine's Day thirty years ago, so it hadn't been difficult to guess at the purpose of her sister's plans.
An electronic version of Mozart's "Eine Kleine Nachtmusik" interrupted Caley's thoughts and she glanced over at her cell phone sitting on the passenger seat. Snatching it up, she looked at the caller ID, then tossed it back onto the seat. Brian. He'd called at least twenty times since she'd left New York for a business trip in San Francisco a few days ago. So far she'd avoided answering.
She and Brian had been exclusive for nearly two years and he'd planned to come to North Lake with her and meet the family. But at the last minute, he'd canceled, begging off because of work commitments. It was at that moment Caley realized her relationship with Brian had become a waste of time. Between out-of-town business trips and busy schedules, they'd spent three nights together in the past monthnot much considering they lived in the same apartment.
She squinted through the snow, searching for the sign pointing to West Shore Road. There was a time when she'd known every inch of the tiny town of North Lake. She'd spent every summer of her life here until she'd gone to college.
Even after years of being away from this place, and in the midst of a chilly winter night, she felt a familiar sense of excitement course through her. She remembered the frantic packing the day after school let out for the summer. And then came the ride from Chicago to the lake in an overstuffed minivan, her mother behind the wheel. Her older brother, Evan, always sat in the front and controlled the radio while Caley sat between her younger siblings Emma and Adam. The youngest, Teddy, was wedged into the far back seat between the suitcases and the boxes of kitchen supplies. Her younger siblings had always worn their swimming suits on the ride up so they could jump out of the car and into the lake without having to change.
But Caley had always had other things on her mind. With each mile that passed, she'd grown more excited, the anticipation building, the nerves fraying. What would he look like? Would he be exactly as she remembered or would he have changed? Had she changed? Would he see her differently? Would this summer finally be the summer when she'd kiss him?
Year after year, drive after drive, her every thought had always been focused on him. Even now, Caley found herself falling back into old habits. Jake Burton. He'd been her fairy-tale prince, her knight in shining armor, her schoolgirl crush and her first love, all wrapped up into one incredibly hot boy.
His family had the summerhouse next door. They'd all summered together for years: the five Lamberts and the five Burtons, an unruly tribe of kids known around North Lake as the Burtberts. For years she'd looked at Jake like her older brother, Evanan icky, gross, burping and spitting cad who had more cooties than she cared to count.
Then, one day they were swimming out to the raft and Jake dunked her under. She'd gone under as an eleven-year-old girl and surfaced a teenager with her first crush. He'd been thirteen that summer and a handsome boy. Even now she recalled his pale blue eyes and his perfect teeth. How little droplets of water had clung to his dark eyelashes as he smiled at her and how his face was so smooth and tanned she felt compelled to reach out and touch his cheek.
When she had, Jake had slapped her hand away, a confused frown wrinkling his forehead. But from that moment on, she'd been in love. It was only later that her hormones had turned chaste puppy love to teenage lust. And later still to feelings that bordered on obsession and finally, ended in humiliation.
She drew in a deep breath and sighed. Over the past eleven years, she'd managed to visit the lake house only when Jake was certain to be elsewhere.Yet, with each visit she'd secretly hoped that maybe she'd run into him again, maybe she'd have a chance to undo the mess she'd made the night of her eighteenth birthday.
Her phone rang again and Caley cursed as she picked it up. But this time, she didn't recognize the number, only the Manhattan area code. Now that she'd been named a partner, her boss was free to call her at any time, day or night, and John Walters had taken advantage of that fact more than once. Caley wondered what kind of emergency had come up at nearly 4:00 a.m. Manhattan time.
She flipped open the phone and held it to her ear. "Hello?"
"I figured you were screening so I was forced to call from the payphone on the corner."
Caley recognized Brian's voice and bit back another curse. "I really don't want to talk to you. I said everything I needed to say before I left. It's over."
"Caley, we can work this out. You can't just end it. Everything was going so well."
She laughed, shaking her head at his ability to spin the situation. Brian was one of the most successful young lawyers on Wall Street. Like her, he could put a positive spin on the worst disaster imaginable.
"How can you say that?" she asked. "We barely see each other. And when we do, we have nothing to say. We talk about work."
"What do you want? I can talk about other things."
"That's not the point," Caley said, growing more frustrated. Usually, she was able to express her views clearly and unemotionally. But this time she had no idea what she wanted. She just knew she didn't want to come home to Brian anymore. For a long time, her life had felt out of balance and this was the only way she could think to fix it.
"What is the point?" he asked.
"I" she took a deep breath "I'm not happy."
"When has that ever made a difference to you?You work nonstop, you never take a vacation, every minute of your life is planned. Of course you're not happy. Who would be? But, Caley, that's the way you like it."
"Not anymore," she said. "It just doesn't feel right." Suddenly, she felt a panic grip her body. Was this the right thing to do? Was she really ready to give up? A buzzing in her ears made her dizzy and for a moment she thought she might pass out. "II have to go. I'll call you when I get back and we'll sort out all the details. Goodbye, Brian."
Caley quickly pulled over to the curb and rolled the window down, breathing deeply of the cold night air. For the past month, she'd been fighting these panic attacks. They'd become an almost-daily occur-rence. She'd blamed them on the stress of being named a partner, on living in Manhattan, on her doubts about Brian. But Caley sensed that none of these factors were really the cause.
The sound of a siren startled her and Caley looked in the rearview mirror to find a police car pulling up behind her, lights flashing. She hadn't even been close to the speed limit! But when she'd pulled over to the curb, she might have swerved too suddenly in the snow. Caley watched in the side mirror as the police officer got out of his SUV and approached the car. A sudden shiver of fear raced through her. She'd seen the stories on the news. Rapists and serial killers posing as policemen. Caley brushed the thought aside. This was North Lake. Things like that happened in New York, not in Wisconsin.
When the officer reached her car, he tapped at the window with his flashlight. Caley pressed the button on the console and the window slid down an inch. "Show me your badge," she demanded. He held it out and Caley snatched it from him. It looked real enough. She opened the window a little more and handed it back.
"License and registration, please," he said.
"I-I'm not sure I have a registration," Caley said.
"This is a rental." She pulled her license out of her wallet and handed it to him, then reached for the glove box. "The car comes from Speedy Rental at O'Hare. I have the rental agreement right here." She handed him the paperwork, then peered out at him.
"I wasn't speeding."
"You were talking on a cell phone," he replied.
"We have an ordinance against that in North Lake. Have you been drinking, ma'am?"
"No," Caley said, stunned by his question. "I just pulled over because I was tired. I needed some fresh air."
He paused as he examined her license. "Caroline Lenore Lambert," he muttered. "You're Caley Lambert?" He shone the flashlight in her face and Caley squinted.
"One of the Burtbert kids?"
"Yes," she replied.
He turned the flashlight off, then leaned down, sending her a friendly smile. "Well, don't you remember me?" He pointed to the name tag pinned to his jacket. "Jeff Winslow. We went out on a few dates the summer of well, it doesn't really matter. I took you sailing. I ran the boat aground over near Raspberry Island and you called me an idiot and dumped a can of Coke on my head."
Caley did remember. It was the sailing equivalent of running out of gas on a deserted country road. She also remembered how Jeff Winslow had tried to kiss her and feel her up and how he'd chided her for acting like a priss. Most of the boys she'd dated that summer before college had served just one purpose for Caleythey were a feeble attempt to make Jake Burton jealous.
"Of course," Caley replied. "Jeff Winslow. My goodness, you're a policeman now? That's almost ironic considering all the trouble you used to cause."
"Yeah. A misspent youth. But I've reformed. I got a degree in criminal justice, then worked for the Chicago P.D.," he said. "Then I heard they were looking for a police chief here and I thought, what the hell. I'd been shot at four times in Chicago and figured my number was coming up. So I came home." He chuckled. "I guess you've caught yourself a lucky break."